HIV Crisis Spurs Quick Action by N.Y. Districts

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School leaders in Chautauqua County, N.Y., launched an AIDS-awareness campaign last week after local health authorities announced that a 20-year-old sexual predator from outside the area had confessed to infecting 11 young women--one as young as 13--with the virus that causes AIDS.

Authorities allege that Nushwan Williams, who is now in a New York City jail facing drug charges, knowingly spread the deadly human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to young girls he met outside schools and parks in the area over the past two years.

At a press conference last week, Dr. Robert Berke, the Chautauqua County health commissioner, described Mr. Williams as "some kind of scorekeeper," who kept records of the young women he had sex with and, in some cases, may have traded drugs for sexual favors.

After the initial shock of the announcement, school authorities in the rural upstate New York community quickly snapped into action.

Districts dispatched crisis teams to schools to counsel students, sent information packets on HIV prevention home to parents, and urged students who suspected they might be infected to go to local health clinics, which temporarily extended their hours.

Health authorities are concerned that young people who may not know they have been exposed to the virus could unintentionally infect others.

Several high schools also held special assemblies last week that served as refresher courses on HIV prevention for students.

The Next Step

In an auditorium in Chautauqua Central Lake High School, health officials and teachers reminded students about how AIDS is transmitted, stressing that the virus that causes it cannot be acquired through casual contact.

They also reiterated what students need to do to protect themselves from infection.

"While these circumstances are very troubling to everybody, students need to be assured that there's no need to change what's going on in the schools because we operate every day as if there may be students with HIV here," said Lionel Meno, the regional superintendent for the Erie II Chautauqua Cattaraugus school district, which oversees the 18 districts and 25,000 public school students within Chautauqua County.

Mr. Meno said the county school system employs a well-respected K-12 AIDS education program that teaches students about AIDS transmission as early as elementary school.

But like many such efforts around the country, prodding students to abstain from sex or to use condoms if they are sexually active has often proved challenging for schools. ("Teaching About AIDS," and "Characteristics of Effective AIDS Education Curricula," Feb. 5, 1997.)

The events of the past week have prompted many school and community leaders in the county to wonder what else needs to be done.

"Despite our best efforts, some children may not be getting the message," Craig King, the superintendent of the 5,850-student Jamestown city school district, said in a recent statement. "They do not believe that it can happen to them," he said.

Ronald James, the outreach director for the Jamestown city YMCA, who has been counseling local students, said one solution is to have a wider variety of after-school programs to keep children occupied and out of trouble.

"The reality now is older guys are preying on younger girls, and these predators are winning," Mr. James said.

He said Mr. Williams, the alleged sexual predator, was widely known to young people there.

"We should create activities to keep kids busy after school to keep their mind and body gearing toward success, because these kids have too much idle time," he added.

Mr. Berke, the county health commissioner, said that parents have a critical role to play as well.

"As a father of four, a physician, and a public-health official, I am appalled by the degree of societal dis-ease [sic] at our doorstep," Dr. Berke said.

"There is much work to be done if we are to make use of this incident so that it may serve only as a bitter lesson learned, and one that is never again to occur in any community that values its children," he said.

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